The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland has apologised unreservedly to survivors of sexual abuse following the publication of a report that found evidence of systematic and widespread sexual and physical crimes in Church-run institutions.
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA), which published its findings today, investigated allegations of abuse in 22 children’s homes in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995.
It condemned the failure of the Catholic hierarchy to act and prevent abuse, highlighting in particular the case of Fr Brendan Smyth, a sexually abusive priest whom the hierarchy moved between parishes despite knowing about the risk he posed to children; it also found that Sisters of Nazareth at four Catholic-run homes in Belfast and Derry physically and emotionally abused children in their care.
The Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said survivors and their families were "uppermost in my thoughts today" and praised their courage, dignity and perseverance in coming forward.
Rightly, he said, they had been heard and vindicated, adding that the Church must redouble its efforts to ensure such abuse never happens again.
"It is now important for all of us to accept [the report's] findings as a fair reflection and analysis of how both Church and State failed the most vulnerable members of our society," he continued.
Apologising unreservedly, he acknowledged that his words were inadequate "in attempting to address the enormity of the harshness and brutality which many innocent children experienced."
He referred to abuse at the hands of a priest or religious as the betrayal of a sacred trust and said: "I am ashamed and I am truly sorry that such abuse occurred, and that in many cases children and young people felt deprived of love and were left with a deep and lasting suffering."
Archbishop Martin called for urgent action from leaders in the Church and committed to do all that he could to support survivors of abuse today and in the future.
The Bishop of Kilmore, Leo O'Reilly, echoed Archbishop's Martin's apology and said that what he had seen of the report was "heart-breaking to read."
He acknowledged in particular the findings against Fr Brendan Smyth and the failure of those in authority in the Diocese of Kilmore to act when they became aware he was abusing.
"The Church cannot be, and should never have been, a safe harbour for anyone responsible for abuse," he said. "I am acutely conscious that the Church has a moral responsibility to be demonstratively vigilant in the area of child safeguarding, both in order to ensure the wellbeing of children, and also to earn the confidence of parents and of children alike."
The biggest public inquiry into child abuse ever to have been held in the UK, the HIA inquiry was set up in 2012. It is being chaired by retired judge Sir Anthony Hart.
PICTURE - Chairman Sir Anthony Hart is presiding over the independent Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry at Banbridge Court, Northern Ireland